A Gerontocracy? The Politics of Aging

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By James H. Schulz and Robert H. Binstock

About three decades ago (in 1974), the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science sponsored a symposium entitled “The 1990s and Beyond: A Gerontocracy?” It raised and seriously addressed the question of whether the United States would become a country dominated and ruled by elders.

Although many members of Congress and other political leaders are of advanced age, they were not the focus of the AAAS discussion. Rather, the symposium focused on the political consequences of population aging and presented different views regarding the likely effects of demographic change on the outcome of national elections. The general answer from the panelists was that an America with a much larger population of elders would see only a modest change in twenty-first-century American politics.

We agree. But those whom we call the Merchants of Doom (in our recently published book Aging Nation) would not.

For example, contrast with the AAAS discussion the views expressed two decades later by MIT economist Lester Thurow. He addressed the political implications of population aging with the full-throated cry of a Merchant of Doom. He depicted aging baby boomers as a dominant bloc of voters whose self-interested pursuit of government benefits will pose a fundamental threat to our democracy:

[N]o one knows how the growth of entitlements can be held in check in democratic societies… Will democratic governments be able to cut benefits when the elderly are approaching a voting majority? Universal suffrage…is going to meet the ultimate test in the elderly. If democratic governments cannot cut benefits that go to a majority of their voters, then they have no long-term future…In the years ahead, class warfare is apt to be redefined as the young against the old, rather than the poor against the rich.1

As we will show, such apocalyptic political visions are based on a naïve view of contemporary older voters and old-age interest groups. They see elderly voters as a powerful monolith of greedy geezers whose political priority is to squeeze more and more old-age benefits from government. We want to make clear that this simplistic view is sharply contradicted by the facts. The modern history of old-age politics is far more complex, and the future will not be as scary as some predict.

The "senior power" model
Implicit in the gloomy scenarios that portray greedy geezers as a threat to American society is a specific way of looking at policy processes. It is often called the “senior power model” for interpreting the politics of aging. The model starts with the fact that older people constitute a numerically significant portion of the electorate. It then assumes that their political behavior is guided by their self-interests and that most of them perceive their interests to be similar to those of other older people.

The senior power model assumptions are based on the notion that older people are homogeneous in political attitudes and voting behavior and thereby, through sheer numbers, are and will increasingly be a powerful, perhaps dominating, electoral force.  The senior power model also assumes that interest groups representing older people are very influential forces that can “swing” the votes of older persons and thereby “intimidate” politicians. Based on all these assumptions, it is not difficult to believe that older voters and old-age interest groups are able to exert substantial control over policies on aging and that they can elevate the relative priority of these policies in national politics.

Some of the many commentators who subscribe to this set of beliefs have put forth rather radical proposals for containing senior power. More than three decades ago, for instance, a professor at Brandeis University proposed that all Americans be disfranchised at retirement or at age 70, whichever came earlier.2 In 1981, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services, voiced fears that the “gray lobby” would win a pitched battle against the children’s lobby in a competition for shrinking social welfare resources. He proposed that parents with children under the voting age of 18 be enfranchised with an extra vote for each of their dependent children.3

Concerns regarding the voting power of older people are not confined to the United States. For example, Peter Peterson reports that a senior minister in Singapore’s government proposed that “each taxpaying worker be given two votes” to balance the voting power of retirees.4

Do Older People Vote as a Bloc?
During national election campaigns, pollsters and journalists throughout the country mobilize a perennial cliché: “Senior voters are a key battleground in this election.”

Why has this cliché developed? One reason is because older persons have a high voting participation rate. Since the 1976 presidential election, people aged 65 and older have constituted a larger share of all Americans who actually vote than they are of the voting age population. They have been 1) turning out to vote at a higher rate than the rest of the electorate and 2) increasing their participation rate while the rates for all other age groups are lower than they were in the early 1970s. Even so, the fact that older voters participate in elections at a higher rate than younger voters does not, by itself, account for the attention they receive. Older people are far from the largest age group in the electorate. In the 2004 presidential election, for example, Americans aged 45-64 cast 38 percent of the vote, and those aged 25- 44 accounted for 34 percent, compared with only 19 percent by persons age 65 and older.5

Yet, another factor makes it easy to understand why older voters get so much attention. They are a readily identifiable benefits-program constituency that has been created by the very existence of Social Security, Medicare, and other old-age policies. Seniors are therefore a tempting electoral target – “the senior vote” – because in theory they may be swayed by campaign efforts focused on old-age benefits issues.

Why isn't there a senior vote?
Exit polls reveal clearly that targeting older persons through old-age benefit issues does not have much impact on their electoral choices. As sociologist Debra Street has concluded, “There is no credible evidence that age-based voting blocs are a feature of national election landscapes.”6

There are many reasons why the senior power model is wrong in assuming that older persons vote on the basis of self-interest, especially with regard to benefits made available by old-age programs. One reason is that candidates are on the ballot, but issues affecting Social Security, Medicare, and other national old-age policies are not.

In addition, evidence often contradicts the assumption of the senior power model that political attitudes and behavior of older people are predominantly shaped by common self-interests that derive from the attribute of old age.7 And also, logically, there is no sound reason to expect that a birth cohort – diverse in economic and social status, labor force participation, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, education, health status, family status, residential locale, and every other characteristic in American society – would suddenly become homogenized in self- interests and political behavior when it reaches the old-age category. Old age is only one of many personal characteristics of aged people, and only one with which they may identify themselves.

Boomers and the politics of aging
This review of what we know about the modern politics of aging puts us in position to undertake informed speculation regarding what the political milieu will be like when baby boomers have joined the ranks of older voters. On the one hand, we have emphasized that present and past generations of older persons have shown no signs of voting as a bloc in response to self-interests in old-age benefit programs. On the other hand, politicians do perceive older voters as an electoral constituency, attempt to appeal to them, and fear retribution from them. This, in turn, gives various types of old-age interest groups opportunities for exercising some degrees of influence regarding a variety of old-age policies.

How will these patterns in the politics of aging play out in the decades immediately ahead? Will the political characteristics and behavior of elderly baby boomers be different from today’s and yesterday’s elders? Will they band together as an electoral force? Will politicians pander to them – voluntarily or in response to pressures from old-age-based interest groups – by increasing government old- age benefits? Is intergenerational political warfare likely? What broader social forces may shape the future politics of aging?

In general, a reading of the modern history of the politics of aging would support the view that social Security old-age benefits will be maintained for baby boomers in a form and level comparable to today’s benefits. Moreover, despite the revenue demands necessary to do this, the history of age-group politics suggests that there will not be severe intergenerational warfare. In no small part, these outcomes would be due to politicians’ concerns about the old-age vote and the strong political presence that AARP has established in the early years of this century.

But extrapolation from past and current trends is often a poor mode of prediction in the public policy arena, especially when anticipating the state of affairs several decades hence.8 The prevailing economic and political contexts could be radically different from those of today, giving rise to new forms of age group politics. Some are predicting just such a change.

 

 

Endnotes:

  1. L.C. Thurow, “The Birth of a Revolutionary Class.” New York Times Magazine (May 19, 1996): 47.
  2. D.J. Stewart, “Disfranchise the Old: The Lesson of California.” New Republic 163 (8/9) (1970): 20-22.
  3. M. Carballo, “Extra Votes for Parents?” Boston Globe (December 17, 1981): 35.
  4. P.G. Peterson, Gray Dawn. New York: Times Books, 1999.
  5. U.S. Census Bureau, Reported Voting and Registration by Race, Hispanic Origin, Sex, and Age Groups: November 1964 to 2004 (2005). Retrieved on July 7, 2005, from http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/ voting.html
  6. D. Street, “Special Interests or Citizens’ Rights? ‘Senior Power,’ Social Security, and Medicare.” In M. Minkler and C.L. Estes, eds., Critical Gerontology: Perspectives from Political and Moral Economy. Amityville, NY: Baywood, 1999, pp. 109-130.
  7. See, e.g., D. Street and J.S. Cossman, “Greatest Generation or Greedy Geezers?” Social Problems 1 (2006): 75-96.
  8. See H. J. Aaron, “Budget Estimates: What We Know, What We Can’t Know, and Why It Matters.” In S. H. Altman and D.I. Schactman, eds., Policies for an Aging Society. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, pp. 63-80.

 

 

James H. Schulz is emeritus professor of economics at Brandeis University. A former president of the Gerontological Society of America, he is recipient of numerous awards, including the Kleemier Award for outstanding research in the field of aging.

Robert H. Binstock is professor of aging, health and society at Case Western Reserve University. A former president of the Gerontological Society of America, and recipient of numerous awards, he has served as director of a White House Task Force on Older Americans and as chairman and member of many advisory panels to the federal, state, and local governments.

Schulz and Binstock are co-authors of Aging Nation: The Economics and Politics of Growing Older in America, from which this article is excerpted. (Copyright 2006 by James H. Schulz and Robert H. Binstock. Reproduced with permission of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., Westport, CT.) A paperback edition of Aging Nation will be available from Johns Hopkins University Press in April 2008.

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